Senate Spending Bill Would Help NSF Preserve Its Priorities

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

Senate Democrats are hoping to make it easier for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a handful of other federal science agencies to manage the impact of sequestration. And that's good news for researchers who depend on NSF funding.

The Senate's approach, to be spelled out on Monday, would still result in a 5% cut to each agency's budget. But NSF officials say it should give sufficient flexibility to honor funding commitments to current grantees, avoid furloughs, protect programs for young scientists, and continue work on large new facilities. Its terms are also likely to cause NSF to revise its guess earlier this year that the sequester would wipe out 1000 new grants; the actual loss will be much smaller.

The Senate bill is designed to avert a government shutdown, which would happen on 27 March if Congress does not extend a temporary spending measure that has frozen agency budgets at 2012 levels. The House of Representatives has already voted: On Wednesday it passed a bill that would fund agencies through the end of the 2013 fiscal year, on 30 September.

The House legislation includes $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts—the so-called sequester mandated by a 2011 law that went into effect on 1 March. Except for the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs, the bill is also considered a continuing resolution, a category that severely limits an agency's ability to transfer funds, begin a program, or terminate an existing activity.

Yesterday, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she planned to introduce a bill early next week that would modify the House measure while retaining its overall spending level. Her aim, she told reporters, was to provide funding "which goes to meeting the needs of our national security … a shot at creating jobs, and investment in science."

The changes would affect research activities at NSF, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Agriculture Department. By covering those agencies with what is called a regular appropriation, Mikulski's bill would replace both the rigid terms of sequestration—in which every program suffers the same spending reduction—and the constraints that accompany a continuing resolution. Instead, it would give agencies the ability to move money around and address their most pressing needs.

The Senate legislation would make it easier for NSF to meet "its core principles," according to Director Subra Suresh. He says it would also enhance a directive from White House budget officials for agencies "to use all the flexibility at your disposal" in coping with the impact of the sequester.

"NSF has more flexibility than almost any other federal agency," he says. "Our overhead is very low, meaning most of our money goes out the door. And because of our 3-year award mechanism, at any given point about one-third of our money is subject to our discretion."

That added flexibility could be a boon to NSF-funded scientists. As is typical when operating under a continuing resolution, NSF program managers this year have been spending at only 80% of their current allocation. That cautious strategy, Suresh says, allows NSF "to ramp up [spending] if the scenario changes. This is why the 1000 fewer awards is a very pessimistic estimate."

Because of an obscure provision in how the sequester was crafted, the Senate bill would also be a godsend to large projects within NSF's major research equipment and facilities construction account, notably the Ocean Observatories Initiative and the National Ecological Observatory Network. The construction account's current budget is $195 million, including almost $30 million that NSF transferred from its regular research account. But under the rules for the sequester, such transfers aren't counted. So the baseline for the account is $167 million, and the sequester would shrink that amount to $160 million. At that level, NSF wrote to Mikulski last month, NSF would have to terminate construction contracts worth $35 million.

If the Senate bill restores the $195 million figure, NSF would have much more wiggle room. And Suresh said he plans to make a strong case that cutting back on existing construction would be a mistake for both scientific and fiscal reasons.

"By scaling back abruptly halfway through a project, we'd end up wasting resources that have already been invested," he says. "There's also the leadership role that these projects represent in a global competition for the best facilities. So we'd very much hope that we will be able to continue with them."

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